As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Playing With Fire

Rahm Emanuel has been strutting around lately, taking full credit for bringing the stimulus bill to term. This could be seen positively if you didn't understand his next act:

The fiscally conservative Democrats might not have been able to defeat the bill, but a large chunk of Democrats defecting on the top priority of a new Democratic president would have heaped insult on the injury inflicted by the GOP’s wall of opposition. So they huddled in the majority leader’s hideaway, and Emanuel pledged that they would see signs of Obama’s commitment to fiscal reform.

Fiscal reform is a coded word in political circles - he's talking about entitlements. And as nuts as it would be for the President to concern himself with them (in the name of "taking them off the table") during an economic free-fall, that really appears to be what's happening, if Dean Baker is to be believed.

Word has it that President Obama intends to appoint a task force the week after next which will be charged with "reforming" Social Security. According to inside gossip, the task force will be led entirely by economists who were not able to see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which is giving the country its sharpest downturn since the Great Depression.

This effort is bizarre for several reasons. First, the economy is sinking rapidly. While President Obama's stimulus package is a good first step towards counteracting the decline, there is probably not a single economist in the country who believes that is adequate to the task. President Obama would be advised to focus his attention on getting the economy back in order instead of attacking the country's most important social program.

The second reason why this task force is strange is that Social Security doesn't need reforming. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it can pay all scheduled benefits for the next 40 years with no changes whatsoever [...]

In short, the vast majority of baby boomers will be approaching retirement with little other than their Social Security and Medicare to support them. And now President Obama is apparently prepared to appoint a commission that will attack these only remaining pillars of support.

I've tried to give the President the benefit of the doubt when hearing these rumblings. His stated goals for Social Security reform have always been progressive (like raising the payroll tax cap), and his description of Medicare's problems have always shown an acknowledgment that runaway health care spending is the problem, which requires a comprehensive health care solution. You can see that thinking here.

Nevertheless, he's playing a dangerous game by flirting with the fiscal responsibility scolds, the same people who voted to appropriate hundreds of billions for endless war, bank bailouts and the Bush tax cuts. They don't have an interest in controlling long-term Medicare spending, they have an interest in self-aggrandizement and pushing an essentially conservative agenda. Chris Hayes' Nation article profiles one the Blue Dogs, and they are not allies:

The Blue Dogs continue to wield influence. Before the stimulus could be brought to the floor, the House had to approve emergency orders to expedite the process. The Blue Dogs balked and threatened to rebel until the White House sent a letter to several House committee chairs reaffirming its commitment to return to pay-go budgeting after the stimulus is passed. In the end, half the caucus voted against the leadership anyway. The week after the stimulus passed the House, Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin sent an open letter to Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer expressing the caucus's support for efforts by Senate Republicans and conservative Democrats to cut approximately $100 billion from the package--including money for things like school construction, rural broadband and early childhood programs. "We believe that's a highly worthwhile goal," they wrote [...]

This "fraternity" is ostensibly built around a single issue: fiscal discipline. It's a term that is both more and less than it appears.

Everyone understands that Democrats attempting to represent conservative districts have to convince their constituents that despite the D next to their name, they hear them, understand them and share their concerns and worldview. But to do this they've chosen to invest a tremendous amount of political capital in something that, well, no one cares about. In a recent national poll of priorities, the deficit/debt came in a distant sixth, after regulating the financial industry, ending the war in Iraq and healthcare reform. This could be because the national debt as a percentage of GDP is well within post-World War II norms. A Democratic Congressional candidate who unsuccessfully challenged a Republican incumbent in a conservative district in the South put it to me this way: "Nobody brings up the deficit. Ever." [...]

For all their cohesiveness, positive press and legislative leverage, the Blue Dogs haven't produced a ton of legislative accomplishments on their signature issue. On the two most massive expenditures of the last Bush years--the Iraq War and the financial bailout--they've offered little organized resistance. The offsets on the issues on which they've been able to enforce pay-go--like the tax increases to pay for the new GI bill, which the Blue Dogs peg at $63 billion--pale in comparison with the cost of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the bailout, which have cost more than $1 trillion over the past two years.

Where Blue Dogs have perhaps been most effective is in helping Republicans pass legislation and blocking or diluting progressive legislation. During the months-long debate in 2006 over the Military Commissions Act, which was crafted explicitly to deny the right of habeas corpus to enemy combatants, many Blue Dogs supported the bill (against the directive of the Democratic House leadership), and ultimately twenty-three of thirty-seven voted for it. And it's not just on national security issues that they've played this role. In 2007 Representative Brad Miller proposed legislation that would have amended bankruptcy law to allow judges to alter home mortgage terms, a reform seen by many Democrats as necessary to reduce the number of foreclosures. But according to National Journal's online Congress Daily, "bankers...knew exactly whom to go to in order to stop the bill in its tracks: the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats." Sixteen members of the caucus signed a letter objecting to the legislation, prompting it to be pulled from consideration on the floor. As of this writing, it has yet to pass the House.

Positions like this have convinced many progressives that Blue Dogs are little more than bought-and-paid-for agents of big business. One corporate lobbyist explained the Blue Dogs' fundraising prowess this way: companies say to themselves, "Blue Dog Democrats are probably going to be more business-friendly, so let's give them more campaign contributions.... You get elected, you join the Blue Dogs...the money comes flowing." Individual fundraising is then amplified by contributions from the Blue Dog PAC, much of it from large corporations like UBS ($10,000), Citigroup ($10,000) and Coca-Cola ($10,000).

These are corporatists who want to shrink the social safety net. When pushed, Rahm Emanuel will side with them every single time and say "It's the best we can do." This is his way. He sidelined antiwar candidates at the DCCC, he pushed freshman Dems to come out as more anti-immigrant because Hispanics "don't vote." (except they do). He is an accommodationist, perfectly willing to listen to and act on critiques like Dan Boren's, that any bill without bipartisan support is "not American." If fiscal responsibility is seen as the common ground, where the left must sit by while Rahm and the Blue Dogs build a bridge to the Beltway media by cutting off the mass of society to fend for themselves, then we will have a major problem winning elections anywhere in the future.

Obama thinks he can charm the pants off an elephant. This is not the crowd to try that with. They will seal his political fate.

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